Gentle approaches to helping babies sleep

Gentle approaches to helping babies sleep

Whoever coined the phrase ‘sleeping like a baby’ was not, I would bet, a parent. Of course, there are some who are blessed with wonder-babies who sleep through the night from the beginning. But for the rest of us sleep is, at some stage in the first few years of a child’s life, a major issue.

Our story...

My son Timmy certainly prepared me for the time ahead before he was even born. I remember lying awake whilst he tumbled about inside me like a circus acrobat until his self-appointed bedtime of 1.30 am and not a moment sooner! Then whilst he had a lie-in, I was up at six o’clock for work. This timetable continued after his gentle birth at home.

I have some friends who didn’t know what to do with themselves in the first few weeks of their newborns’ lives, as their babies slept all the time. No such joy for me. My son fed all the time, and could sleep for long times at a stretch – as long as he was in my arms. However, the second I put him down to go to the toilet, or to get feeling back into my dead arm, my peaceful child would scream as though possessed.

Whilst daytime sleep was almost non-existent, by the time Timmy was two weeks old he was sleeping through the night. I was delighted. I was a good parent. I was in control. This continued until he was four months old. Then, what started as an innocent sniffle turned into a severe cold. My life turned upside down.

My once-sleeping baby, who had happily graduated to a crib beside our bed, was not only back in bed with us, but on the breast all night. Any time his mouth became detached from the nipple he would wake with a scream. He was snuffling and feverish: I felt desperately sorry for him. But days later, when the cold had subsided, his sleeping was just the same. After two weeks of this my nerves were raw and my eyes so tired I couldn’t keep them open.

Christmas came. I was on my knees after a month of waking every forty minutes from midnight till six – sometimes every twenty minutes. When asked what I wanted for Christmas my heartfelt request was a decent night’s sleep. And yet that was the one thing no one could give me. Timmy was a joy to me most of the time, but at night I was at my wits’ end.

Boxing Day came. No sleep for Christmas, and another cold. My previous lack of sleep seemed luxurious. Now I was awake for three hours straight from two until five in the morning as well as multiple other wakings. After that I banned clocks from the bedroom, and each night became a blur of waking and dozing.

I begged friends, family and childcare professionals for tips; I tried them all. Older locals rolled their eyes as I recounted how not only was Timmy not sleeping through the night, but also he was waking fifteen plus times. The ‘rod for your own back’ speech was rolled out. What sort of a mother was I for not letting him cry it out rather than martyr myself? And so after two months I gave in and tried. He cried for 45 minutes, despite my going in at regular intervals to reassure him, then vomited all over himself, his whole body shaking. My exhaustion had led me to do something I had sworn I never would, and my husband and I resolved that we would never do it again. To this day I feel sick thinking about it: it is my absolute parenting low point.

Over the next couple of months we tried putting Timmy back in his own crib, having him in the bed with us, and even moving our whole family onto futons in front of the fire in the sitting room. We tried earlier and later bedtimes, not breastfeeding to sleep, musical box, bath time before bed, dummies and bottles, teddies and lovies – all to no avail.

Friends and family were supportive, incredulous that I was still surviving on so little sleep. But few had experienced night-waking to this degree and so most did not truly understand the level of exhaustion I felt. My mother used to say sleep deprivation was a form of torture, and whilst she was right, turning myself into the victim and my son into the perpetrator did not help in any way. Instead I had to develop my compassion for him and myself and my resilience and acceptance of the situation. There were days when I was too tired to be safe to drive; on many, we curled up on the sofa in front of daytime TV. We went to friends’ houses where I would be fed, cry and be comforted. 

The No-Cry Sleep Solution

And then, when I was nearly hallucinating from exhaustion, a friend suggested a book: The No-Cry Sleep Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley. It is written with true understanding by a mother who parented in the same way I did. She seemed to understand my predicament and included the words of countless other mothers in my situation. She experienced endless sleepless nights herself with the first and last of her four children. She does not presume that the baby is bottle-fed and sleeping in a cot, as most of the so-called experts do. She writes with kindness and great compassion and gives lots of solutions for parents who are dedicated to co-sleeping and breastfeeding, instead of just telling them to stop.

Pantley recalls how her journey to writing the book started when her baby was waking multiple times a night: “I read piles of books and visited many websites to find solutions. No matter where I turned I found two basic answers: either let them cry it out or learn to live with less sleep! I wanted neither. I knew there had to be a kinder way, a road somewhere between night-time neglect and daytime exhaustion that would be nurturing for my baby and for me.”

She explains the theory behind sleep cycles, and then, rather than prescribe a rigid plan, offers page after page of ideas to try and advice on how to apply them. She suggests that you log your day- and night-time routines so that you have an objective record of what is happening and why. I found these logs very useful, especially in proving to myself that I was not exaggerating the wakings.

Pantley sums up her common sense approach: “I think that parents know in their heart what to do with their child – but the voices of unwanted advice from everyone around them are so loud and determined that it is hard for them to hear themselves think! For example, when your baby is crying, what is your instinct? To pick him up! But when so many people around you are trying to tell you that it’s the wrong solution, you begin to question your instincts.” 

The science of sleep

The science of sleep has been well studied and experts are in agreement about this. Where they differ is in how to respond to the waking.

Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults. Whilst an adult’s sleep cycle (going from light to deep sleep, and then back to light sleep) lasts an average of ninety minutes, infants’ sleep cycles are shorter, lasting fifty to sixty minutes, so babies experience a vulnerable period for night-waking around every hour or even less. Sears recommends that, “as your baby enters this light sleep, if you lay a comforting hand on your baby’s back, sing a soothing lullaby, or just be there next to baby if he is in your bed, you can help him get through this light sleep period without waking”.

Pantley sagely advises that “parents of new babies should know that their infants don’t need sleep lessons. They’ve been sleeping for twenty hours a day in the womb – they know how to sleep! However, their environment can cause disruption to the sleep that they crave. It is a parent’s job to protect their new baby’s need for sleep and provide a safe and comfortable place for it to occur at the right times.

By following Pantley’s gentle advice, within two weeks both of my non-sleeping babies went from multiple night wakings to sleeping six hours or more without a stir. And no tears on either side. She is forever one of my heroes.

So why not just leave your baby to cry?

For a long time, for a variety of reasons, our Western culture has advocated leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep. In The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, shares research which shows that persistent, uncomforted crying leads to cell death and premature ageing of the brain. Scans have shown that the brain becomes permanently wired for over-arousal and oversensitivity, with children less able to calm themselves. “When your child cries in an intense, desperate way, her bodily arousal system is way out of balance... she is experiencing the fight-or-flight reaction, with large quantities of stress hormones being pumped into her body.” This can only be ‘turned off’ by comforting the baby, stimulating the vagus nerve: they are too immature to do this themselves.

According to William Sears, paediatrician, sleep expert and father of eight, “babies need to be parented to sleep, not just put to sleep. Some babies can be put down while drowsy yet still awake and drift, others need parental help by being rocked or nursed to sleep... While adults can usually go directly into the state of deep sleep, infants in the early months enter sleep through an initial period of light sleep.”

Sears explains, “Nightwaking has survival benefits. In the first few months, babies’ needs are the highest, but their ability to communicate their needs is the lowest.” So as a culture we are being unrealistic if we expect a baby to sleep like an adult.

There is now much information available to show that sleep issues are a normal part of parenting during the early years. James McKenna, who runs the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Centre at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, writes: “When it comes to sleeping, whatever your baby does is normal. If one thing has damaged parents’ enjoyment of their babies, it’s rigid expectations about how and when the baby should sleep.”

The chances are that if you are struggling with night waking, then you are probably dealing with a child who is highly sensitive. One in five children falls into this category and requires a parenting style that respects those needs. “An important fact for you to remember”, counsels Sears, “is that your baby’s sleep habits are more a reflection of your baby’s temperament rather than your style of nighttime parenting.”

The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. You have not failed. You can make small changes that may make a big difference. And some stage soon your bleary eyed existence will be a hazy memory. There are no miracle cures, and life without sleep is hard. May your dreams be sweet, whenever you finally have them.

Helping your baby to sleep

  • Make a log of your day and your night so that you get a sense of the pattern of your days and anything that might be affecting sleep.
  • A better daytime nap routine usually leads to better night-time sleep. Be sure, though, that naps do not happen too late in the day.
  • Establish a bedtime routine that both you and your child enjoy, and that is the same every night: something like ‘brush teeth and wash face, nappy, pyjamas, story and milk’. Many find a bath with some lavender in helps to get babies sleepy.
  • No TV or loud games for at least half an hour before bed.
  • Try a different bed arrangement. Older babies might hate a cot but be happier in a low bed (with safety precautions).
  • Make sure your baby feels safe in her room, and that it is as peaceful as it can be. Have it dimly lit, in case she is afraid of the dark, and let her know you are there if she needs you.
  • Don’t talk and play during night feeds and nappy changes. Try to keep the lights off.
  • Be gentle with yourself: don’t take on too much. Sleep when you can; don’t try to catch up on cleaning or work when your baby is napping. Get all the support you can.
  • Be patient. You won’t change it all in one night and trying to do so will put you and your child under too much pressure. If he is particularly bad, he may be teething or getting ill.

For more No-Cry ideas visit


Lucy H. Pearce is a former contributing editor of JUNO. She lives in East Cork, Ireland.

Photo by Helena Lopes



  • Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep by William Sears, Penguin
  • The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley, McGraw-Hill
  • The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, Dorling Kindersley


First published in issue 22 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.  

Back to blog

Are you finding value in our content?

Subscribe to JUNO and receive a new issue packed with nurturing parenting content every other month!

You'll also gain unlimited access to our fully searchable digital archives, with thousands of articles to explore...

Subscribe today